Workers Protest to Protect Families

St. Louis County workers in Hibbing (above) and Virginia protested understaffing in Public Health and Human Services. Their actions led to the county hiring 30 more workers.
St. Louis County workers in Hibbing (above) and Virginia protested understaffing in Public Health and Human Services. Their actions led to the county hiring 30 more workers.

St. Louis County will hire 30 more workers to help deal with staffing shortages and heavy caseloads, following protests by AFSCME Local 66 members.

County Commissioners approved hiring 25 workers in the Public Health and Human Services Department, including six social workers in the Initial Intervention Unit, where workers assess and investigate abuse and neglect reports; 10 child protection staff, who work with families that have ongoing child safety concerns; five financial workers; and four supervisors. They’ll also hire five correctional officers for the jail.

“We’re very happy that we’re getting new workers,” says Kelly Crow, a child protection social worker in Hibbing. “There’s a huge need, not only in our department but in other departments. This is a good start.”

“It’s not the solution, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” adds Local 66 president Dennis Frazier. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Commissioners acted after more than 60 workers marched in Virginia and Hibbing carrying signs saying, “Understaffed, underserved.” They sought to draw attention to how staffing shortages and heavy caseloads are hurting workers and the children and families they serve. AFSCME members also met directly with some county commissioners, attended board meetings and screened board candidates for worker-friendly values.

“A lot of people have gotten involved in making change and realizing it’s up to us to do that,” Crow says.

Human services workers have been facing a rising number of abuse and neglect reports, coupled with heavy turnover as employees quit, retired or transferred. In the first six months of this year, Children and Family Services Division workers screened 1,115 maltreatment reports, up 15 percent from last year, and 45 percent since 2014, the county reports.

Staffing shortages have gotten so serious, the county’s new head of Public Health and Human Services quit after just two months on the job, citing in part that lack of resources.

“The numbers are so great,” Frazier says. “We’ve got 800 kids in foster care. Referrals are up 45 percent. There are huge demands on us. That’s what we’re dealing with – we’ve been understaffed and overwhelmed for years.”

In northwest Minnesota, Children and Family Services workers deal with a complex set of issues, including a shortage of affordable housing, layoffs and factory shutdowns.

“We’re fifth in population but first in many categories you don’t want to finish first in like opioid addiction,” Frazier says. “We’ve got a lot of poverty. We’ve got a lot of things that make life a little difficult for people.”